Technicalities: Pilots Are Not Immune to Unpredictable Events

No matter how prepared or experienced you are, there are "black swans" lying in wait.

Black Swan
Life is full of "black swans," important and decisive events that are completely unexpected but can significantly change the course of events.iStock

My father was handsome. He had the Paul Newman look and knew it.

He came over here from Germany in 1936. He said that he taught himself English, starting on the Red Star Line steamer, by reading The Forsyte Saga. I found that a little hard to believe, but, however he did it, he eventually spoke and wrote English perfectly, though his pronunciation retained an indefinable middle-European flavor. I think he knew there was something seductive about his subtle accent, and I doubt he had any wish, since he was something of a ladies' man, to rid himself of it.

He chain-smoked Players — “Navy cut,” whatever that means — with eventually fatal effect and dressed with casual elegance. As a child, I found the leather patches on the elbows of one of his sport coats particularly fascinating. The one item of his wardrobe that I still have is an Italian-made trench coat, double-breasted, with wide lapels and collars and a multitude of imposing buttons of uncertain utility.

One of the sartorial details of a proper trench coat is a strap that allows the wearer to tighten the cuff around each wrist in inclement weather. My father’s coat had those straps, and they played a part in a curious occurrence.

It was January 1969. My father had flown a single-seat motor glider, a Fournier RF-4, from Yucca Valley, California, where he managed the airport, to Sedona, Arizona. The airplane was either N1771 or N7723; both resided at Yucca Valley at the time, and both are still in the registry — what wonderfully long careers airplanes have! Late in the afternoon he called to say that he had landed gear up at the carrierlike mesa-top airport at Oak Creek Canyon and asked if I would come to fetch him. We had a couple of Cessna 150s that we used as runabouts, and I flew one of them — N8914S, which, speaking of the current registry, I see now belongs to a Mr. David Reznik of San Jose, California — to Sedona to pick him up.

Unruffled, he explained what had happened. There had been a lot of turbulence during his arrival — I experienced it too — and the little Fournier had bounced up and down so violently just before touchdown that his arm had swung down and back up and the loop on his trench coat’s cuff had caught the actuating lever of the single main wheel and unlocked it.

I sometimes wonder at the slender contingencies upon which the events of our lives depend. In this case, my father’s partiality for the look of Humphrey Bogart led him to a gear-up landing.

But there was an oddly coincidental aspect to the accident as well. Exactly 10 days earlier, I had landed N7723 gear up myself.

My father’s excuse was odd, but mine had been even odder. I had been soaring with the prop stopped in the horizontal position, in which it blocked the cooling air inlets, thus both keeping the engine warm and reducing drag. My memory of how this distant event unfolded is, I have to confess, rather confused. I know that as I crossed the threshold, a loud warning buzzer sounded. For some inexplicable reason, I interpreted it as a notification that the airbrakes were deployed. Indeed they were, but what glider has an airbrake deployment warning? Unfazed, I proceeded to land on the two wooden skids that René Fournier had provided just for the likes of me. Other than a bit of abrasion on those skids, the airplane was unharmed.

But what had triggered the warning? Had I, in fact, restarted the engine for the landing? It didn’t seem so; the prop was undamaged, and I flew the airplane again later that day. It remains a puzzle, but that isn’t the point. The point is that I had, in fact, not been asleep at the wheel. I had been perfectly alert and aware of my situation but had experienced one of those unaccountable failures of reasoning that later make people ask, “What in the world was he thinking?” We probably make more of these mental stumbles than we admit, even to ourselves.

I have lately been reading a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. The author is an economist; his subject is how people — consumers, investors, executives — make economic decisions. His conclusion, now widely accepted, is that, contrary to the assumptions of classical economics, much decision-making, even on a very high level, is not coolly rational but conditioned by swarms of intuitive biases, misinterpretations of data, illusions and misconceptions of which the deciders remain blandly unconscious. And no decider is consistently superior to another. Time and chance happeneth to them all.

One of the concepts that Kahneman discusses is “regression to the mean,” that is, the tendency of outcomes to even out over time. He cites the example of a flight instructor 
who claimed that yelling at a student who performed a maneuver badly had a corrective effect, as the instructor had often observed. No, Kahneman says; it’s that both exceptionally bad and exceptionally good performances are eventually followed by mediocre ones, and so, after a particularly poor performance, the student would in all likelihood do better whether the instructor yelled or not.

I am neither an instructor nor a student, but I see this principle applying to flying in general. Most of us tend to have a fairly high opinion of ourselves, possibly with 
ample evidence, and it may make us willing to take chances because we believe that if worse comes to worst, we will be able to rise to the occasion. We discount “black swans” — 
important and decisive events that are completely unexpected — and rationalize them afterward as having been predictable had we just paid more attention.

That retrospective impression of predictability is an illusion. We are not always at our best. Unforeseeable events will occur, and we cannot be sure how well we will cope with them. It’s not too clear to me how to put this insight into action, but one lesson is that we should not make a habit of flying at the edge of our abilities but stay comfortably near the middle of them. This is, admittedly, easier said than done. If we never dare, we never learn. But if we always dare, well, the black swans are lying in wait.

And, of course, be careful what you wear.